The Real Mystery of HBO’s ‘True Detective’

true-detective-posterThe biggest mystery at the center of the new HBO crime series True Detective is this: is this a good show or not? When the first episode ended, I thought, “I don’t know if that was great or mediocre.” Six of eight episodes in, I’m still not at all sure.

In part, this is a problem endemic to mystery stories: endings are dispositive. AMC’s The Killing had everything it took to be a great crime series — acting, atmosphere, intelligence, suspense — until the idiotic solutions rendered it second rate. The ending of Crime and Punishment secures the novel’s status as a work of genius, whereas the ending of Woody Allen’s attempt to nullify Crime and Punishment — Match Point — reveals the film as nothing deeper than you would expect from a really smart undergrad philosophizing over pizza and beer.

So we may not know the full truth about True Detective until the final hour’s close. But how’s it doing so far?

Well, it has big shoes to fill, first of all. The show was clearly set up by HBO — and has already been hailed by some — as the next great crime show in this era of great crime shows. After The Shield, The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, Breaking Bad and Justified, man, I set my DVR for this baby before the promo announcer reached the tive in Detective. And I wanted to love it. And I still want to love it. And I sometimes feel like I almost love it. And I might come to love it. But I don’t love it yet.

So as a crime writer and a crime story fan, I’m going to try to get to the bottom of this phenomenon in a series of blogs. In this first one, let me list what I see as the basic pros and cons. There will be spoilers.

The Pros.

The style: it looks great. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga is doing a fantastic job conjuring up a Louisiana wasteland where the bayou laps at the edge of something that’s not quite civilization.

The structure: Two cops are interviewed in 2012 about a crime that occurred in 1995. So we simultaneously get to see our heroes in the bloom of youth and at the beginning of their decline, each period informing our idea of the other; very cool.

The acting: toss a couple of parts like this to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson and it’s feeding time in the lion’s den. They’re a joy to watch and almost obscure the fine performance being turned in by the underused Michelle Monaghan as Harrelson’s put-upon wife and a wonderfully subtle smaller turn by Shea Whigham as a tent preacher.

The Cons. 

Well, the tired plot above all and the even more tired plot elements. A Satanic serial killer who poses his victims? Really? Evil-doing religious people who molest children? Boy, I never saw that before! A corrupt Billy Graham type? It is to snore. Nothing surprises. Nothing is new. Even the writer Nic Pizzolatto said in an interview, “I’m not interested in serial killers. I certainly have no desire to get into some kind of creative competition for who can think of the most disgusting serial killer.” Well, fine — then come up with something fresh. That’s the job. Quite often, this strikes me as a crime story for people who never watch or read crime stories.

The pros and cons came crashing together in one stunning set piece at the end of episode four. Here’s the set up. Our detectives, Harrelson’s Marty Hart and McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, find they have to reach a source in a biker gang. But hey, it just so happens to be the biker gang Cohle used to be undercover with. And hey, it just so happens the bikers never found out he was an undercover cop. So Cohle goes back into the gang, is forced to take a lot of drugs to prove his sincerity and then, to further prove his sincerity, is forced to participate in an armed hold-up which starts a shoot out and race riot. But he manages to drag the source out of the melee.

What? The plotting is absolutely ridiculous — but then the action sequence is absolutely superb. I don’t mean to be picayune or cranky. I loved the funny, crazy, exciting shoot-out and chase. I just didn’t believe it for a minute. It violated the show’s carefully constructed sense of realism. I was dying to just kick back and enjoy it but the coincidences and absurd reasoning kept taking me out of the moment.

The whole show is kind of like that. At one point, Michelle Monaghan’s character remarks of her husband (I’m quoting from memory): “He didn’t know who he was, so he didn’t know what he wanted.” The same could be said of the series.

But all of this, though basic, is secondary. The real star of True Detective is Pizzolatto, the writer. This is first and foremost a written show and the question behind the question of its quality is this: does Pizzolatto have something really rich to say or is it all just flash and bang?

More on that in my next installment.

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  • pneville

    I guess, since you didn’t mention it, that you didn’t watch the copious skin displayed by Woody’s first and second girlfriends. You just subscribe for the articles. The philosophy of Matthew’s character is so bizarre and unfathomable it is a real distraction-not to mention grossly anti Christian. I will keep watching for the skin.

  • tagalog

    Why do they call what is described as a fictional story “TRUE Detective?” After the old magazine? But the old True Detective magazine published true stories, albeit playing up the sensationalism as much a possible.

  • Godagesil Rex

    I love the show. The writer in my opinion is trying to tackle the question through McConaughey’s character of how can there be a God when he allows such horrors to occur in the world. The ridiculus contradiction of “free will” is often offered up as an answer the question. Thankfully the writer sees throught that and is not buying it. Neither is McConaughey’s character and is riddled with angst, from that as well as the obvious moral bankruptcy of nearly all those around him, his partner, his partner’s wife, his police captain and the ministers. It is corrosive and he probably the only person in the show with any integrity is being destroyed by it and chooses to divorce himself from it, while still pursuing what he sees as justice. Religion is just “Lagniappe” thrown into the stew of a plot to season it. All the characters swim in a gumbo of immorality and corruption. It reminds me of the movie, Angel Heart and evokes the seamy underside of Louisiana. The music reminds me of the openning theme of True Blood.

    • CaoMoo

      The answer is there was a challenge to God’s sovereignty “Men can be like God and judge for themselves what is good and bad and rule themselves”. Rather than wiping the slate clean and ruling through fear, God said fine I’ll give you time to prove it. He will according to revelations set things right according to his original purpose which has not changed and reestablish the Earth as it was meant to be. (Rev 21: 3,4 a good summation) It is the entire theme of the bible that gets obscured through much of the doctrine, dogma and adopted pagan teachings of many of Christendoms branches.

  • Whitesheperd

    Give me a break, the show is downright spectacular

  • MarilynA

    Matthew McConaughey used to be a delight to watch. But the last few movies he has made leaves me wanting to throw up instead of feeling good about anything. The one in which he simulates forcing a woman to do deviant sex ( using a chicken leg) was the last straw. I no longer automatically tune in to anything he is in, thinking it’s going to be worth watching. If I want to watch porn, I will tune in one of the porn channels. Goodness knows there are plenty of them. Looks like history keeps repeating itself. He won’t be the first good actor who threw it away. His character in this new Detective series sucks, just like his roles in his recent movies.

  • Sally

    I mostly agree with the author but I would add a con: snoozefest. I fall asleep every time I try to watch an episode. Its style and feel is what compels me to try to stay awake and watch. And I wish Matthew McConaughey didn’t low-mumble so much.

  • Crassus

    I used to love Cheers until Woody Harrelson ruined it for me. With the exception of No Country for Old Men, I haven’t watched anything he was in since.

  • Shannon Nutt

    Andrew, you really shouldn’t be reviewing TV – this is one of the all-time great television series, and the best thing on HBO since THE SOPRANOS.

  • Berceuse

    Answer: Not particularly. Without a redeemable protagonist, there’s no hope of a good story. For truly entertaining and thought-provoking television film noir, give me the “Jesse Stone” series any day.

  • rebaaron

    This show has nothing, but then again there is something about it that keeps me coming back. I usually watch an episode in four or five sittings. Klavan is right. The ending will decide the issue. And kudos to Klavan for the theme of the article. Is the show good or bad. So far, I dunno.

  • Wemedge1

    At the end of your post you said that TD was all about the writer, which is spot on IMHO. Pizzolatto, (whose name reminds me of a rather unorthodox menu choice in an Italian restaurant), looks to be a pretty able literary writer. Not to add to a fine post by a seasoned crime guy, but it’s like he’s marrying his literary talents with the grit of a crime story- sort of like that funny-sounding food/drink combo surname. Pizzolatto, I suspect, is one of these geniuses who happened to be born and raised in a solidly working class family and neighborhood.

    This all makes, for this viewer anyway, unusually interesting entertainment. Then there’s that whole Yellow King subtext which has some bloggers going nuts looking for the use of the color yellow and using the ‘weird fiction’ classic The King in Yellow to exegete True Detective. (Google: The One Literary Reference You Must Know to Appreciate ​True Detective ).

  • Gerski62

    Andrew’s remarks about the obtuse plotting are right on. Unlike him, I don’t think that judgment need be suspended on Pizzolatto — a guy with nothing important to say about… well, about what? Human nature? Louisiana society? American society? A case of style over substance if I ever saw one.